Argan oil, colloquially called the liquid gold or white gold of Morocco, is the most expensive vegetable oil in the world. The oil is produced mainly in Morocco from the kernels of the argan tree (argania spinosa), which is endemic to the semidesert Souss Valley in southwestern Morocco and grows virtually nowhere else in the world. The argan forest in Morocco covers more than 800,000 hectares (or 3,089 square miles).

Well-suited for harsh environments, the argan tree can thrive in heat, drought, and poor soil and live between 150 and 200 years. The average number of  argan trees per hectare in the region of Essaouira ranges between 50 and 300 trees. Overall, the number of the argan trees in the region is about 20.5 million trees.

Amazigh villagers in this part of Morocco view the argan tree as a symbol of life. Everything in this tree is useful, from its trunk to its fruit. Amazigh people have traditionally used the trunk of the tree to make furniture, the branches for charcoal; and the leaves and the soft pulp of the argan fruits to feed cattle. Amazigh women extract argan oil from the kernels inside the hard nuts.

Argan Oil: Is Outside Exploitation of Morocco’s Liquid Gold Imperiling Local Coops?

Argan oil cooperatives, as fair trade businesses, have emerged in recent years with the help of some European development agencies, such as the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and, later, the Moroccan government through the National Initiative for Human Development. GIZ has played a major role in creating many women’s argan cooperatives and raising awareness about the need to preserve the argan tree. These efforts directly led to Morocco’s argan forests being designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1998. UNESCO also added the argan tree’s “practices and know-how” to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014.

The Union of Women’s Cooperatives for the Production and Marketing of Argan Oil, known as UCFA, is one of the projects implemented as part of  a program of Moroccan-German technical cooperation under GIZ) in 1998 in the southwest regions of Morocco.

“Today, more than 4,000 women, organized in more than 300 cooperatives in southwestern Morocco, earn their living by making and marketing argan oil.”

The successful long-term impact of GIZ projects on the local population living in the argan areas is reflected in the number of women’s cooperatives established and supervised by GIZ. “Today, more than 4,000 women, organized in more than 300 cooperatives in southwestern Morocco, earn their living by making and marketing argan oil,” Michael Gajo, Chief of Environment, Climate and Biodiversity of GIZ Morocco, told Inside Arabia.

Official statistics about argan oil production are rare and very hard to obtain. Exports of argan oil generate MAD 279 million — or about $30 million of foreign currency — annually for the country, according to a joint report released by seven argan oil production, trading, and marketing companies obtained by Telquel Arabi.

Morocco produces more than 4,400 tons annually. 70 percent of which is exported, while the rest is consumed locally. However, foreign companies dominate the Moroccan argan trade, with 60 percent of the exported oil belonging to them. This has put the future of 400 women’s cooperatives and hundreds of other local companies and marketing intermediaries in peril.

“Foreign companies drain natural argan wealth without having any positive impact on the living conditions of the rural population in argan areas,” according to the producers’ report. The price of argan oil outside Morocco is roughly $300 per liter, more than seven times the price in Morocco of only about $40. Third-party traders and marketing intermediaries clearly benefit disproportionately from this paradoxical pricing.

Moreover, this trade practice runs contrary to the Moroccan government’s approach to the argan trade, which is based on three important strategic goals: Developing rural communities in the country, valuing economic resources, and protecting the environment.

Roukaia Amshtkou, 43, told Inside Arabia that she established the Inter Cooperative for Argan Oil with nine other Amazigh women in Tiznit in 2013. Like many other women’s cooperatives, hers has benefited from the Moroccan government’s assistance in providing 70 percent of the equipment, including oil extraction machines, as well as occasional training courses that focus on marketing and advertising.

There is fierce competition among Moroccan argan cooperatives. For one thing, they must obtain quality certificates from international standards organizations in order to be able to export their argan oil internationally. However, many argan cooperatives, including Roukaia’s Inter Cooperative for Argan Oil, do not have the financial resources to acquire such certificates. Consequently,  they remain unable to export their products or increase their profit margins.

Amazigh women have been extracting argan oil for centuries, with each generation passing down innovative, equally ingenious ways to benefit from the precious argan kernels. After removing the soft pulp of the argan fruit, women crack the argan nuts between two stones. This is considered the most labor-intensive part of the process of extracting argan oil. Then, the women have to toast the kernels found inside the nuts and grind them into a paste in a traditional stone rotary quern. After mixing the paste with warm water, the women finally begin squeezing the argan paste by hand to extract the oil. It takes two days of hard work to make just one liter of this type of argan oil, which is used for culinary purposes.

The same process is repeated to extract cosmetic argan oil, but with some variation. In order to keep the healing and nutritional properties of argan and for a faster extraction of the oil, argan kernels are kept fresh. Women press them directly in machines to preserve the vitamins.

Amazigh women have been using this precious oil for hundreds of years for its unique medicinal, nutritional, and cosmetic properties. To this day, Amazigh women, and women all over Morocco, and indeed now the world, use argan oil for many purposes. Not only do they use it for cooking, they also use it in their skin and hair care.

People around the world use argan oil as a natural hair treatment, as it is capable of mending split ends and nourishing the scalp. For skin, it is used frequently to treat skin conditions such as dry skin, eczema, and infections. Additionally, it is also highly effective as an anti-aging and restorative miracle oil due to its combination of essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamin E.  

Argan oil is also an essential element of the Moroccan breakfast table, whether as a dipping oil with fresh bread or as amlou, a spread similar to peanut butter made of roasted almonds, pure honey, and argan oil. With a flavor reminiscent of grilled hazelnut, Amazigh women add edible argan oil to almost every dish–from many varieties of tajine to couscous and fish.

The argan forest in southwestern Morocco represents an important aspect of the country’s natural heritage. It serves as a natural barrier to protect the Souss plain from desertification and to keep the soil in the Atlas mountains. The activities associated with the extraction of argan oil also play an important part in reducing the migration of rural population to urban areas.

As early as November 2009, Morocco started preserving the argan tree through the Development Strategy of Oasis Zones and Argan Tree Groves, under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development, Water, and Forests. The main objectives of this authority are the establishment of modern argan farms that rely on the latest irrigation methods and the rehabilitation of 200,000 hectares of argan forest. The ultimately goal is to increase argan oil production in Morocco from 4,409 to 11,023 tons per year.

The argan forest, which makes up 18 percent of Morocco’s forests, plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance in the semi-arid Atlas region. Despite overharvesting, overgrazing, and climate change, the argan forest continues to provide a source of income for Morocco’s rural southwestern population–especially its women.

The forest also supplies top-quality argan oil for luxury spas and leading cosmetic brands globally. However, the Moroccan government, local populations, non-governmental organization, and investors need to play a more active role in preserving the argan forest and ensuring fair practices, so that the budding industry can continue to respond to the increasing demand for Morocco’s liquid gold regionally and internationally.